What is next for Ulster following the parting of ways with Dan McFarland?

Ulster had long been inconsistent under Dan McFarland, with the province often promising to kick on, like with their impressive victories against Leinster at the RDS and Racing 92 at Ravenhill this season, but for every great display, there was a poor performance, like their 19-17 loss to the Ospreys at the weekend.

In what was McFarland’s last game in charge of Ulster, he was “proud” of his players’ performances and thought they had done enough to secure the win, but found fault lay in the officiating of the game.

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He said: “The game was pretty scrappy in that first half. The ball was pretty greasy and we looked a little bit rusty after the break.

“Ultimately, the game came down to two instances, both where we were in control, one in their 22 where they got an intercept pass and the second one was at the end of the game where we were in total control and the refereeing decision called a scrum on the back of a maul.

“I have literally no idea what that was about. You see that every week. I’m going to ask and find out because ultimately those two instances decided the game in the Ospreys’ favour.”

However, this defeat is yet another defeat this season, their seventh. Ulster can be encapsulated perfectly as an inconsistent side, as they have also won seven games this season. Refereeing decisions cannot solely be blamed for this level of inconsistency.

McFarland took charge of Ulster in the autumn of 2018 and leaves the club in his sixth season in charge of the Irish side, the longest tenure for any Ulster head coach in their professional era.

And the former Connacht prop deserves plenty of praise for the way he turned things around when he stepped into this role. The club was in turmoil, on and off the pitch. Brian O’Driscoll branded the operation a “basket case”. But he arrived on board and steadied the ship.

Crucially, he brought through a raft of young talent, including a stellar cast of homegrown and exciting backs: the likes of James Hume, Rob Baloucoune, and Mike Lowry.

Yet, their season so far has been disappointing, as they were eliminated from the Investec Champions Cup and currently occupy eighth place in the United Rugby Championship.

While much has been made of the change of pitch surface from grass to 4G not helping the style of Ulster rugby, forcing them to play a faster and more attack-focused game, this issue is not the root of all their problems.

Undoubtedly, there is talent in the Ulster squad, with 18 capped international players, including one World Cup winner. But standards have not been maintained by the players when the big games come, as the side wilted against Harlequins in the Champions Cup.

Mistakes have become common, including an increase in handling errors by key players such as Jacob Stockdale. This would not be too much of an issue if these errors were not leading to the side conceding scores and failing to execute in crucial moments in attack, but they are.

As talented players like Stuart McCloskey, John Cooney, and Iain Henderson continue to age, the need to have a man at the helm to extract the best out of these players before they retire became a pressing issue.

And with rumours circling at the end of last season that players were not happy with the management style or tactics of McFarland amid growing financial concerns with a need to release players, the relationship between head coach and club looked doomed.

McCloskey had previously talked about his worries about the new system being deployed for the 2023–24 season as the province plays more high-risk rugby, but ultimately, he believed it would be good for Ulster. Since his comments in December, McFarland’s side don’t look to have mastered these tactics as they still lack the consistency needed to deliver silverware to Belfast, and ultimately, it has contributed to the Englishman’s departure.

McFarland did enjoy reasonable success over his tenure, but this season was a far cry from even Ulster’s worst year under the English coach, the 2020-21 season, when the club were eliminated from the Champions Cup while finishing second in their Guinness Pro14 pool.

Ulster fans have dreamed of a head coach that could bring silverware back to Ravenhill, and McFarland had promised to do that, reaching two quarter-finals in the Champions Cup to lose narrowly to Leinster in 2019 before being soundly beaten by Toulouse in 2020. While his domestic performances have been heralded with two semi-final qualifications and one final defeat in his five completed seasons with Ulster,

The biggest missed opportunity for the 51-year-old to guide the Ulstermen to silverware came in the 2021-22 season, when they lost the semi-final in the last play of the game to the eventual winners, the Stormers. But had they reached the final, it would have been played at Ravenhill, with many touting them as favourites in that scenario.

Ulster have been devoid of silverware since their last league win in 2006, when they lifted the Magners League trophy, and with the current performances of the team in Europe and domestically, that record does not look like ending soon.

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Having seen all three other Irish provinces win silverware in the last ten years, Ulster fans have been left feeling jealous and rueing the inability of their talented squad to follow suit.

Ultimately, the major problem was inconsistency for Ulster, with the defeat to the Ospreys being the straw that broke the camel’s back for McFarland. Fans never knew which Ulster side they were going to get on a given day, and so Ulster have decided to look elsewhere for a head coach that will maximise the talent in this Ulster team to finally claim some silverware.

The final word from Ulster came from CEO Jonny Petrie, who when announcing the change officially, said: “We would like to thank Dan for his determination in driving forward the professional squad over the past six seasons, and I would like to wish him and his family the best for the future on behalf of all at Ulster Rugby.”

Highly-rated Ireland U20 coach Richie Murphy will take over after the U20 Six Nations concludes. In the meantime, assistant Dan Soper will take over. Who gets the gig full-time remains to be seen.

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